Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Scary Train: The Christmas Special

This site has fallen by the wayside since the curse of Scary Train at Hallowe'en (which turned out to be one of the most popular posts to date) but we'll be back in the New Year with new and better content. In the mean time, enjoy the one clip that I deliberately held back from the original Scary Train video: the Jingle Bells record!

[Someone has commented on Youtube that they have the same train and it doesn't sound like ours. Perhaps one or two of the notes is wrong on ours, but it's always been that way.]

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Special: The Scariest Thing We Own

Before anything else, let's just take a look at the way this toy was advertised:

Apparently, the Tuneyville Choo Choo was meant to be fun for the whole family, especially 'your favourite toddler.' It worked on much the same principle as the hallowed Fisher Price Record Player: notches set at interval on the plastic records triggered different notes, in order to play a song. In this case, it was whistles in a train instead of music box tones.

The only trouble is that you can only play songs in one key, and apparently the good people at Tomy who made the Tuneyville chose an evil-sounding minor one. The video you are about to see is my wife's old Tuneyville--I never had such a thing. It both fascinates and terrifies me, as it does our 18-month-old daughter. It sounds Satanic -- as if you could take out the batteries and it would still keep coming after you! This is a far cry from the happy train pictured in the commercial...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Top Ten Movie Songs of the 80s, Part 1

This list is a part of the inspiration for 'Raised in the 80s": a selection of songs culled from my 'Radical 80s' playlist. I kept listening to them and smiling quietly to myself. There's a groaner or two in the list, but they all make me smile -- some in a genuine way, some ironically.

These are all movie songs. They're not necessarily the theme songs of their respective movies, but maybe they ought to be. As an added bonus, I've tracked down their videos on Youtube. So herewith: The Top Ten Movie Songs of the 80s...

#10. Axel F (by Harold Faltermeyer)
as appearing in 'Beverly Hills Cop'

A generation of kids in the 80s got their first synthesizer and wanted to play this one. A friend of mine figured out how to play it using a touch-tone phone. And twenty years later, it became the Crazy Frog song. I don't know if that says something about the lasting impact of the 80s, or if it just means that everything we make in the 21st century has been hopelessly derivative... [shudder]

#9. The Glory of Love (by Peter Cetera)
as appearing in 'The Karate Kid, part 2'

I promised you a groaner, didn't I? :) Peter Cetera just might be the epitome of 80s schmaltz. If it gets any worse than this, I don't want to talk about it. (Actually, I'll probably someday have to do a 'Ten Worst' list. Any nominations?) 'The Glory of Love' just sounds like the 80s to me. It's got camp value, and it's so bound up with the Karate Kid franchise that it's got to make the movie song list. (While we're on the subject, let's not forget that one of Hilary Swank's first big screen roles was in 'The Next Karate Kid.')

#8. Oh Yeah (by Yello)
as appearing in 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off', 'The Secret of My Succe$s', and a bunch of Twix Commercials
This song doesn't really go anywhere, and it's questionable whether it even qualifies as 'song', but it shaped a decade. I think everyone always wanted to 'borrow' Cameron Frye's father's Ferrari and take the day off school. All you need to do is put your sunglasses on and say "Ooooh Yeah...." And it's Duffman's song, now. Who could ask for anything better?

#7. Flashdance... What a Feeling (by Irene Cara)
as appearing in 'Flashdance'
As far as I can see, this is another groaner, but it's one that needs to make the list. But others will tell me that I don't officially have an opinion on the matter, since I've never actually seen Flashdance. But the song won an Academy Award, so someone thinks it was worth the time...

#6. Danger Zone (by Kenny Loggins)
as appearing in 'Top Gun'
I don't really know if there are any real Mavericks out there any more (I think I've seen a Goose or two), but Top Gun lives in the 'iconic' section of the Encyclopedia Nostalgica. Kenny Loggins also gets honourable mentions for 'Footloose'.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bonkers / Chipmunks / Perfect Strangers / Nintendo

Can you remember eating Bonkers candy? As I recall, they weren't all that different in texture from a Tootsie Roll, but they were fruit flavoured. We saw all these commercials, and assumed that we would have just as much fun eating Bonkers as these folks. I guess it's no more false advertising than the you'll-get-soaked-when-you-chew-our-gum commercials on now. The old woman was pretty annoying, though.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the *only* real manifestation of the 'Rodent Invasion'. Yes, I understand that the Chipmunks had their own life back in the 60s, but that would have to be someone else's blog. It seems like I saw this show every single day of my youth. I remember their first full-length movie. This latest film can't hold a candle. The only *real* chipmunks are cartoons, people!

Regularly, I lament the loss of 'Perfect Strangers.' There was never much of a plot; a lot of stupid slapstick comedy, but it's really nostalgic for me, and it makes me pine for it all the more to think that of all the crappy reruns of everything else they play on cable, they've never rerun Perfect Strangers. Apparently, the first two seasons are out on DVD now. When I can see them, you *know* I'll be doing the dance of joy!

Do you remember the thrill of opening your Nintendo for the first time? We had a SEGA, and it was pretty cool, but we always had the Nintendo-envy. Remember how those systems blew the old Ataris out of the water? But remember when the cartridges started to get a bit dusty and temperamental? Remember blowing down the edge, rather superstitiously, to clear away the dust? Did anyone ever actually *have* that robot that they advertised? What did he do? No one that I knew ever had such a robot. I almost convinced myself that he was just a figment of my imagination until I saw this commercial again.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Amazing GI Joes

Just a quick post today with a mix of a whole lot of things that made me go 'Whoa.'
I'm always a sucker for action figures, even though I never got into GI Joes when I was a kid. They were too posable, and when they got older, they'd never stand up on their own any more. Their joints were just too weak. However, in addition to action figures, I'm also pretty impressed by stop-motion animation, and a zombie flick is pretty hard to beat. Enjoy!

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Fright Zone and the Slime Pit

Finally! Here was an evil lair worth attacking. Hordak was a later addition to the He-Man villain lineup. As I recall, he was really only there for a tie-in with the She-Ra series. But unlike Skeletor, who, as we have seen, wasted all his money on a big impressive-looking mountain that didn't actually do anything, Hordak invested in quality. Witness the Fright Zone and the Slime Pit. They were much smaller than Castle Grayskull or Snake Mountain, and so actually cheap enough that you could conceivably get both without needing little brothers to share with.

So far as we could tell, Hordak didn't actually live in the Fright Zone, or if he did, there was never any attempt to pretend he was doing anything more than just hunkering down in the dankness. But the place just looked so creepy that you could excuse that. He-Man is coming to rescue one of his friends. Let's say it's the beautiful Teela. She's locked up in a cage that is remarkably sturdy, unlike Skeletor's cheap clip-on shackles. The back of the cage is rock wall, and the door is latched shut with a sturdy lock. The only way to get her out, without just chopping open the wooden bars is to climb up and pull a wooden lever above the door.

But that's really just setting yourself up for more trouble. In the middle of the Fright Zone grows some kind of haunted demonic tree. Hordak has been thinking ahead! He knows that the latch release is pretty obvious. It's wooden-brown against the greenish-grey rock, so it will be an early target for any raiders. So he planted an evil tree to protect it. As soon as He-Man gets near it, the tree grabs him and gives him a good shaking, dropping him down to the ground, too dazed to do battle with...
As an adult, I realize that that's not what it was called. However, having seen the above commercial, my brothers and I were convinced that the voice yelling 'The Fright Zone! The Fright Zone!! The FRIGHT ZONE!!!' was actually warning He-Man about the giant monster named the 'Frasto' that lived inside. This was the best part -- a big green monster puppet that you could put on your arm and reach out through the tunnel to attack He-Man and friends. Or, when you got tired of that, you could just put it on, and chase my little brother Matthew, yelling 'The Frasto! The Frasto!' He cried. Then my parents took away 'the Frasto' and we had to grab action figures through the tunnel with our bare arms. Somehow it was never as satisfying...

So assume that He-Man was not able to defeat the big green Frasto, or the skinny child arm that reached out to attack him. Then he was up against the worst part of Hordak's lair. The second part.

The Slime Pit

The first time I saw this commercial, I knew we had to have this playset. Who cares that the only thing it does is pour slime on an action figure? It had slime! Mattel was playing the genius card there. At that point in time, just about every toy line was coming up with some reason to sell kids a can of sticky goo. Silly-putty was a thing of the past. Someone was selling something much runnier called GAK! The Real Ghostbusters would sell you a can of purple Ecto-plasm and He-Man had to face up against the Slime Pit.

When we opened this on Christmas morning, it was a bigger deal than the year we got the Fright Zone. Everything was forgotten, and we had to play with it right away. It snapped together in no time. The point of the toy was this: a giant reptilian claw held the action figure in place, while the skull filled with slime tipped forward. The jaw swung open, and your action figure got slimed. The best part was that since Hordak was He-Man's enemy and Skeletor's enemy as well, you could slime just about any of your figures!

The adult part of me is hard pressed to come up with a reason why any of Hordak's enemies would be stupid enough to just stand there over the claw, while Hordak waited until they were lined up just right, before springing the trap. The kid in me still yells 'Who cares? It's got slime!' Funny thing was, that Christmas morning, both of my parents looked up in slight concern, and said 'Wait a minute. It's got slime?'

See, this is why parents need to watch toy commercials as well. I can't imagine a single scenario where I would ever get any toy for my child without first knowing what it did, and whether there was any oozing mucus that came with it, which she could use to ruin the living room carpet. My parents took one look at the slime, and decided that it was too messy, and would be taken away (presumably, to share a shallow grave with the Frasto). So whenever we slimed anyone, we had to use water, or, if that seemed too wussy, our imaginations.

So out of all the He-Man action playsets, Hordak had the best hangout. In fact, he had two--the Fright Zone and the Slime Pit. However, the one thing he never took into account when designing them was a more powerful enemy than He-Man and Skeletor put together. The awesome might of parents.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wednesday Feature 2

Here comes another quick round-up of commercials, sitcoms and cartoons. Let me know which ones of these you remember...

One day, I promise that I'll have to write a post about our fascination with computers in the 1980s. I remember using a Commodore 64 much later than anyone should ever have used the thing. But whatever else has changed, Apple still makes a damn fine computer. And they still make pretty good, convincing commercials. In 1984, though, they had Ridley Scott directing commercials for them!

I have the feeling that someday, Doogie Howser will warrant a whole post, as well. Funny thing is that when you're a kid watching this, the show loses some of its punch. OK, so he was a teenage doctor. It could happen! When we were kids, we didn't really have very much of a 'plausibility-screener'. A kid could be a doctor, if he was some kind of a genius. Just because we'd never really heard of that in real life, doesn't mean it couldn't happen somewhere! And let's never forget the fact that he always finished every episode with a little computer-diary entry. Some folks have already noted that Doogie Howser was the world's first blogger. Alas, at the time, we didn't know that's what he was doing . How could we? Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet yet. That's how you knew he was a genius. He was easily fifteen to twenty years ahead of his time.

This one was just shameless. My Pet Monster was just a plug to get you to buy the toy. In 1986, someone had the bright idea of marketing a plush doll for boys, with horns and fangs and a pair of big orange handcuffs ("Put 'em on you, and break away too!") I don't really know how well they sold initially. I'm betting parents thought that the doll was too horrific, and would frighten small children. So they came out with a cartoon to popularize the toy. Apparently, the cover story was that when you put the cuffs on him, he would shrink down and look like a stuffed toy. When the cuffs came off, he became a prank-playing, garbage-eating monster. As if you needed another reason to be afraid of the doll!

And these were really weird. Remember 'Time for Timer'? These were a series of Public Service Announcements that used to run during Saturday morning cartoons, reminding us to eat nutritious snacks instead of just junk food. In general, I always wondered what 'Timer' was supposed to be. Was he some kind of a potato? He didn't look like anything I ever wanted to eat. With this particular 'Time for Timer,' I was well into my twenties before I realized he was not saying 'A Hank o' fur, a hunk o' cheese...' Scary.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Snake Mountain

Following up on Friday's reminiscences of Castle Grayskull, here's a little story about Skeletor's hideout in Snake Mountain. Never did any evil warrior have a more crappy lair. It's a classic case of putting everything on the outside, but having nothing much once you get in. Apparently, as long as it looked scary, it didn't really have to do much.

Let's assume that He-Man wants to storm Snake Mountain and put some serious hurt on Skeletor and company. So he starts climbing up the path to the bridge. First thing he sees is his old pal Sy-Klone chained up for Skeletor's delight. He stops to think about how much effort it would have taken to attach those shackles to the 'fist-flinging tornado' and then realizes that they're just snapped on! Whatever perverted business Sy-Klone has got going on here, it's best left alone! Moving on, then..

Just past the chains is a giant talking head. This was the only thing that made Snake Mountain worth playing with. There was a built-in echo microphone, which distorted your voice and made a creepy monster-type effect, while you moved the mouth of the giant head to talk to He-Man and scare him away. It was also used for some of our first experiments in feedback, which was equally creepy. The only thing I never figured out was this -- was the creepy voice supposed to be Skeletor's way to communicate with the outside world, or was the mountain itself talking, like in the commercial? Either way, watch out for this kid using the mic. You know he was warped by playing too hard with this playset!

Next, he faces Tri-Klops on the bridge, but he's a pushover. Literally. No action figure could ever stand up that long on the bridge, and you were lucky if it would even hold up a figure's weight before buckling in the middle. And then, of course, the railing only comes up to Tri-Klops' knees! If he'd had any sense, he would have taken the high ground, waited for He-man to get onto the bridge, and then pushed him off, but now he's the one falling to his doom! Even with all those eyes, I'll bet he didn't see that one coming!

So up the last flight of stairs to the wolf-gate to take on Skeletor once and for all. But Skeletor has ducked inside with one last surprise. The big green snake-head swings blindly at He-Man, and as he's trying to dodge that, he suddenly realizes that he's standing on a trapdoor! It drops open, and suddenly He-man falls into the net waiting below.

Now, this was a clever move on Skeletor's part. Castle Grayskull had a trapdoor, but it opened right over the entranceway, so anyone who fell through went clattering into the rack of weapons just inside the door. Way to go, bonehead! Now your enemy is mad, and you've just dropped him next to the weapons chest! At least Skeletor planned for there to be a net to catch his prey.

He-Man struggles wildly in the net, and then realizes that there's nothing else in Snake Mountain. Apparently, Skeletor and his cronies sit around on milk crates while they hatch up their evil schemes. Or else he's in the giant hammock that they all curl up in. Honestly! Inside Snake Mountain, all there is to see is the reverse impressions of the creepy faces in the outer wall.

Looks like in the tradition of university students everywhere, Skeletor sunk all his money into a kick-ass sound system, with echo microphone, and now doesn't have any money for any kind of furniture. But he's got plans, though. He's gonna get himself some of those cheap Salvador Dali prints to go up on the wall and make him look cultured. Ooh, and a flag for a curtain! That would be awesome! Maybe he can even start saving up all his empty beer bottles to make a big display on the wall. That'd be cool.

He-Man gets up in disgust, and then he realizes that Skeletor has snuck out through the hole down in the lower left corner. He asks himself 'WTF?! Why didn't I just crawl in through there in the first place?' This is why Skeletor can never win. He's got this big menacing fortress, but he never remembers to board up the hole in the basement! Looks like He-Man is going to have to find a tougher enemy! [Don't worry--he will...]

Friday, October 10, 2008

Castle Grayskull

I got to thinking about He-Man after Wednesday's commercials. Specifically, I got to thinking about the 'Action Playsets.' Action figures were one thing, but if you were hardcore, there was always a big toy to bug your parents for. In our house, these were really only going to be the kind of thing you got for Christmas, not even for your birthday, so you had to think carefully and plan the campaign well, in order to get the action playset you really wanted.

I was lucky. I had two younger brothers, and most years it was a pretty good bet that we'd each get one playset, so it was pretty easy to stage some elaborate afternoons reenacting He-Man scenes from TV, or, failing that, from commercials on TV. Or Star Wars, or Voltron, or whatever. We seemed to have a lot of He-Man, and his playsets were usually pretty big.

I just found out recently that apparently there was an 'Eternia' playset, which from this commercial looks pretty big, but I can't really see what all its features are. We never had that; never even knew it existed until this year. But here's the beginning of a rundown of what we did have:

Castle Grayskull
This was an important part of the collection, even if other sets had better accessories. As I recall, Castle Grayskull worked like this. The 'jawbridge' opened when He-Man stuck his sword into a little slot and drew back the latch. When He-Man and his friends got in, the first thing they could do was hang up their weapons on a tidy little rack inside. If they had lost their weapons (when your little brother chewed on them or dropped them behind the couch) the set came with an assortment of generic beige weapons, so no one had to feel left out.

Having put their weapons away, the next thing they'd want to do is go upstairs. There were two ways to get there. Lazy action figures, like Man-at-Arms could take the garish orange elevator (which always seemed a bit high-tech for a castle shaped like a skull). However, if this particular Castle Grayskull was new, the elevator was pretty stiff and wouldn't move. If it had seen a few months' play, it would slide so easily that no one could stand on it; their weight would just drag it back down again. He-Man would usually leave his lazy friends cursing on the elevator, and climb up the ladder. It would buckle under his weight, but as long as he moved fast, he'd get there.

Soon enough, Man-at-Arms would give up on the elevator, and someone would have to shove him up through the hole to the second floor by hand. But by the time he'd gotten there, there was only one thing left to do -- visit the second half of the upper level, cross the ornate rug to the throne, and...

Surprise! That's why He-Man wanted to take the quick way up! So he could swivel around on the throne, triggering the trap door, and letting Man-at-Arms fall on his ass back down to the first floor. Usually, he'd land on the rack of weapons, scattering them all over the place, so he'd have to pick them all up again and hang them on their fiddly little hooks.

There was also some kind of freestanding pivoty club thing. I never really understood what that was supposed to do. You hit one end, and the other end came flying around to knock you over. Good times and practical jokes in Castle Grayskull.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wednesday Feature 1

This is the beginning of a Wednesday feature. In the middle of the week, when things are at their worst, look to 'Raised in the 80s' for a quick pick-me-up! Every week we'll take you down memory lane with two commercials, a cartoon theme song, and a live-action sitcom-type opening.

Really, the He-Man commercials were always the best. Look at the way those kids were getting into it, with their sneers and the voices that they did. And parents blamed D&D for warping their kids!

I remember most 80s sitcoms being pretty much like this one: Head of the Class. They weren't particularly good, or particularly funny, but there were only a couple of channels, and they were the only thing on. So you just shut up and watched them. While familiarity does breed contempt, it also breeds contentment, and shows like this were just a kind of 'comfort food.' For the next 30 minutes, you really didn't need to think!

Turbo Teen was living proof in the 80s that you didn't need to have a great plot, or a very strong premise to make a cartoon. All you needed were some secret government experiments, a 'ray,' and you're set! I don't remember much about the show, except I saw it once or twice on Friday nights, and it wasn't very well-received. The guy used to turn into a car when he got hot, and turn back into a person when he got cold. You can see the limitless plot potential there. Does anyone remember what he and his friends used to do? Did they solve mysteries, like every other teenagers?

Sad to say, I actually remember eating this. Candy in a bowl. You just don't see that kind of creativity in the cereal aisle anymore.

Thanks to RetroJunk for the inspiration!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fire Prevention Week

The other day, we were walking past the fire station, and saw the big sign for Fire Prevention Week. Do you remember that?

I lost track of how many not-to-scale floor plans of our house I drew over the years. Each one showed how I'd get out of my room in case of a fire (out the door, like a normal person) an alternative route (jumping out the window in a panic, breaking both my legs).

But there was something else that bugged me even more. Every year, firemen would come to the school and announce a colouring contest. If you won, you got to be 'Fire Chief for a Day', and spend the morning touring the fire department, then take a firetruck to your school, to the envy of your friends.

I always wanted to win that. Not because I particularly wanted to see the fire department--I wanted to take the firetruck to school and turn the hoses on a few select people! I never did win, which was probably just as well. But this year I asked myself for the first time why no one at our school won. Were we that bad at colouring? Why didn't I ever hear of anyone at any school winning that contest?

I'll tell you why. That was all a big scam! No one ever won, which raises the question: what the hell were they doing with all those elementary school colouring pages?! I think they used them to start fires to train the rookie firemen.

When my daughter goes to school, she won't be allowed to enter any colouring contests. They just perpetuate an impossibly-high standard of colouring inside the lines, and lead to poor self-image in the colouring department, and turn you into a jaded, bitter adult. Whenever she wants to enter one, I'm just going to take her to the movies instead.